The Australian dollar has become the Steven Bradbury of currency markets - ‘winning’ by default because all its rivals fell in a heap.
Like the Aussie skater’s unlikely Olympic medal win, the dollar remains at sky-high levels because of the sloppy performance of its bigger, and normally stronger, counterparts.
By all rights, the dollar should have fallen back below $US1.00 in the past few months; commodity prices have fallen, economic growth has slowed and interest rates are lower and consumers and businesses are generally pretty depressed. But this week it climbed above $US1.05 to reach fresh three-month highs.
ANZ interest rate strategist Andrew Salter expects it to remain around $US1.05 throughout 2013 and possibly hit $US1.10.
It’s not that the Australian economy is doing particularly well, he says, it’s that most major developed economies - Europe, Britain, Japan and the United States - are weak and likely to stay that way.
Furthermore, the US Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate growth have pushed the US dollar lower against its Australian counterpart.
‘‘The problem at the moment is that Australia at the moment looks ok but everything else in the world looks pretty poor,’’ he said.
The stubbornly high dollar has caused significant pain to many Australian businesses and farmers - and the situation could get worse in 2013.
Cotton farmer Graham Clapham, from Queensland’s Darling Downs, says the high dollar has been devastating at a time when he should be making a reasonable profits.
Global cotton prices are quite good at the moment, compared to historical levels, but because all trade is done in US dollars, farmer’s aren’t making any money.
‘‘It’s beating up our business financially,’’ he said. ‘‘The return for the Australian cotton grower is probably below the cost of production and that’s occurring at a time when the price (in US dollar terms) is reasonable.’’
He said his greatest fear is that prices fall while the dollar remains high.
‘‘That would be an absolute disaster for the Australian cotton industry.’’
Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia chief economist Saul Eslake said the high dollar was good news for consumers, but was hurting the economy.
‘‘The high dollar is good for consumers, although increasingly it does encourage them to consume outside of Australia, either by going overseas themselves or by buying overseas,’’ he said. ‘‘But it is not necessarily good for the overall rate of economic growth.’’
He said a high dollar could interfere with the Reserve Bank of Australia’s hopes that underperforming sectors of the economy - like construction, manufacturing and retail - would pick up in 2013 once the boom in mining investment peaked.
‘‘That is really going to make it very difficult for the Reserve Bank to achieve its goal of a baton change from the resources sector to other sectors in terms of driving economic growth,’’ he said.
Despite that, it appears to there is little the RBA can do bring the dollar lower.
Interest rate cuts are normally a good way to push the currency lower, but the dollar remains higher than it was 12 months ago, despite the RBA cutting the cash rate 1.75 percentage points since November 2011.
Mr Salter said the RBA could intervene in currency markets, but the cost of doing so - both financial and to its reputation - would make it very hesitant to do so.